Hong Kong's 'last' umbrella man

July 28, 2015 16:19
“I can fix any umbrella,” Henry Yau says proudly. Photo: HKEJ

Standing outside Henry Yau’s umbrella store in Sham Shui Po, we were amazed by the endless flow of customers.

“Good business,” we marveled. But the wife said it was even better the day before. 

“Umbrellas are quite durable, why are so many people buying new ones?” we asked.

On rainy days, lots of people would leave their umbrellas somewhere and lose them, Ms Yau explained.

Yau, the husband, is the fifth generation running the family business, which started in 1842 during the Qing Dynasty. He is 61 years old.

He learned the trade from his father when he was a kid.

Yau sells and repairs umbrellas. He charges about HK$40-80 for each repair job. A brand new one costs between HK$20 and HK$150.

Giving us a crash course on how to pick umbrellas, Yau noted that aluminum ones are no good as they are weak. Aluminum with titanium alloy is the best as they are light and sturdy, he said.

The cheapest are the most popular ones. During the rainy season, most people who troop to his store have their own umbrellas, of course, but forgot to bring them.

With repair costs close to the price of a new one, we wonder why people would pay to get their umbrellas fixed.

In about 15 minutes, three customers — a young lady and two middle-aged ones — brought their umbrellas for repairs.

“It's more environment-friendly to have one repaired," explained the young lady, who said she found Yau's address on the internet.

"Also, my umbrella does a good job of protecting my skin from the sun's UV rays. I bought this one from overseas and I couldn't find anything like it in Hong Kong.”

Another customer told us hers is still quite new; it would be a waste to throw it away.

Some umbrellas have special designs so having them fixed is more desirable than buying a new one.

Others stick to their umbrellas because they bring back old memories, Ms Yau said.

Many of the customers appear to be living in the neighborhood, but some came a long way to seek out Yau’s shop.

Yau does not just fix umbrellas, he also throws in brief lessons on umbrella maintenance for his customers.

When opening a folding umbrella, “you have to wake them up slowly”, Yau said jokingly, demonstrating with his hands how to shake the umbrella gently while pushing it open.

“Don’t open your umbrella sideways, point to the sky instead,” he added.

Probably because umbrellas used to be pricier, or because Hongkongers then were not in the habit of throwing things that could still be repaired, the umbrella fixing business was booming in the '80s.

But today, it is a dying craft.

“Do you have any apprentice?” we asked.

“No, I don't like to teach people, I don’t like others to surpass me,” Yau said.

We weren’t sure if Yau was just kidding. But he did point out that fixing umbrellas is not a good trade at all.

“It’s dangerous, it’s time consuming and it’s not financially rewarding at all,” he said, adding that that could be the reason why nobody cares to learn this traditional craft.

The spiky skeleton of an umbrella can easily hurt the fingers. For automatic ones, there are spring parts that can pop out and hurt the eyes if not properly handled, Yau explained.

Fixing an umbrella takes about half an hour, sometimes longer if the problem is more complicated.

Yau sometimes fixes umbrellas for free, if the customer is an “interesting person”.

He left and came back from the back of his store to show us an “antique”.

“The owner of this umbrella was a ship captain. He had traveled the world and is now in his eighties. Decades ago, he spent HK$200 to buy this umbrella in the UK. You know at that time an apartment in Hong Kong cost around HK$20,000. So it’s a lot of money.

“The handle is silver-plated and it opens up in a peculiar way.”

Yau has been in the business for four decades, longer if we count the days when he helped out his father.

It’s not his dream job. He loves painting and all sorts of handicrafts. But it was hard to make a living out of those. So he followed in his father’s footstep.

“I can fix any umbrella,” Yau said matter-of-factly.

It’s a job that requires a lot of precision. Slightly off, the umbrella may end up easy to open but hard to close or the other way round.

“When I pass away, probably no one else in Hong Kong will know how to fix an umbrella like me,” he said of the disappearing craft.

Yau sometimes shows his customers how to do a quick fix by themselves if the problem is a minor one.

But some customers simply don’t have the time or the inclination to do so. “I'll just bring it back to you when it breaks down again,” one customer remarked.

Yau will oblige, but he will not be strong forever.

For the time being, he is happy to make use of his skills to help people and earn a living.

In fact, he is joining an event at Citywalk in Tsuen Wan on Aug. 23.

Those who want to see how he brings a damaged umbrella back to life with a few simple tools and a pair of nimble hands shouldn’t miss it.

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Yau loves creating knick-knacks like this one he fashioned out of a plastic soda bottle. Photo: HKEJ
Yau loves paper folding too. He says this gold fish is one of its kind and boasts a lot more details than those found on origami websites. Photo: HKEJ

EJ Insight writer